Machiavelli 'an overused hero'

May 22, 1998

Citations from Machiavelli are being seriously overused by writers on management, argued a paper at the "Machiavelli at 500" conference.

Terry Berrow, lecturer in strategic management at the University of Humberside and Lincolnshire, quoted management writer Stephen Crainer's view that The Prince is the 16th-century equivalent of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and that Machiavelli's insights are "as appropriate to many of today's managers and organisers as they were 500 years ago".

Mr Berrow said he was not denying Machiavelli any relevance: "There are undoubted parallels, particularly when you can use his views as a metaphor for business. But you can say the same for Clausewitz, Hobbes, Rousseau and any number of other thinkers."

Mr Berrow doubts that Machiavelli would have seen precise parallels between the 16th-century city-state for which he was offering advice and a modern business. "The business is subsumed within the state, not a state itself. The state can, when all else fails, resort to violence," said Mr Berrow.

He notes that Machiavelli's references to "lopping off the heads of the tallest men" and his admiring references to Cesare Borgia's use of violence were "not harmless rhetoric, but spoken in earnest".

Mr Berrow suggested that overuse of Machiavelli occurred because he was "eminently quotable - witty, economic and terse in style", that his black humour suited modern tastes and that citing a great name gave gravitas to a discipline still unsure of its intellectual standing.

Moreover he notes that the bulk of citations come from The Prince rather than the longer, more rounded Discourses and the least management science owes Machiavelli is to read him fully and to understand his context, rather than simply mining him for aphorisms.

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